Getting Hot in the Kitchen

The flap at Dayton City Hall over televising commission meetings is a tempest in a teapot, but it is instructive for what it reminds us about the dangers of allowing politicians to control the media.

Weary of the ceaseless heckling they receive from a handful of gadflies, city commissioners this week decided to unplug the television cameras during the portion of their meetings devoted to public comment. The idea behind this move is to rob the nattering nabobs that annoy commissioners of an audience. Turn off the video cameras and they’ll stop pestering, seems to be the commissioners’ thinking.

This isn’t an untried strategy. Politicians in other cities from time to time have taken similar steps – often to the same outcry that greeted this move.

Former Commissioner Abner Orick called the decision “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Orick, obviously, hasn’t been keeping up with reality TV programming, but still his point is taken.
“There are thousands of citizens who can’t go to the meetings and this is their opportunity to view them,” he argued. “It should be more instead of less.”

Representatives of Dayton Access Television say they may bring their own cameras to the meetings, rather than rely on city equipment, to thwart the commissioners.

Dayton resident Keith Landers told the commissioners, “You’re telling citizens that their comments are not worthy of other citizens hearing them.” And there was more of the same.

To be fair, the Dayton City Commission isn’t turning off the cameras while they’re on stage. Dayton residents still will be able to view the mind-numbingly dull proceedings of the commission at work. It’s the colorful, often abusive commentary from the audience at the meeting’s conclusion that’s getting the hook.
Of course, this isn’t about cutting off comments from the public. It’s about cutting off criticism of the commission. It’s a good bet that if citizens were streaming into city hall en masse to sing the praises of Mayor Rhine McLin and her colleagues, the commission would gladly pay the overtime to keep the cameras running all night long.

What do we learn from this contretemps?

Nothing really new. Nothing that we weren’t taught in civics classes when we were younger.
History shows that the first things tyrants do when they take power is confiscate the typewriters. Only later do they worry about the guns.

Give the state the power to regulate the press and you can bet it will be overseen in a manner that is most beneficial to the politicians – and at the expense of those who would challenge their authority. Power corrupts, and all that.

Not that the members of the Dayton City Commission are tyrants. They aren’t. But the impulse is the same. It’s defensive and it’s petty.

To their credit, Commissioners Idotha Bootsie Neal and Joey Williams have objected to the change in policy. Because Neal is up for re-election, she faces potential criticism that her objections are politically motivated.

So what? In a democracy that’s the point. We want our elected officials to be responsive to the public, not turn away – or turn off – when the people are seeking to be heard.

The mayor, facing of a torrent of the very sort of criticism she was trying to avoid, now says she might reconsider. She should. To paraphrase Harry Truman, if she didn’t like heat, she shouldn’t have gone into the kitchen.

Copyright, 2003, Jeffrey C. Bruce. All rights reserved.

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